Theatre Review – The Mikado (ENO)


The Mikado
English National Opera
Music by Arthur Sullivan and lyrics by W.S Gilbert 
Directed by Jonathan Miller


Reviewer: Andy Millward

This being a revival of Jonathan Miller‘s famed and oft-repeated 1987 production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s, The Mikado, you can imagine a proportion of the audience (who were packed in like the proverbial canned fish) came primarily for the familiarity.  This interpretation is very much the chicken tikka masala of English light opera, for although it is nominally set in medieval Japan, there is little more quaintly English – and few can build on the sly mickey-taking of other countries better than Mr Miller.

In fact, Miller’s vision of The Mikado is described on the ENO’s website thus:

Set in an ever-so English 1930s seaside hotel, Jonathan Miller’s Marx Brothers-inspired song-and-dance Mikado is a popular hit with audiences of all ages. The combination of Gilbert’s virtuosic wit, Sullivan’s memorable melodies and Miller’s hilarious antics is irresistible.

Entertainment value notwithstanding, production values are high.  The set looks more like a stylised 1930s trompe l’oeuil version of the Raffles hotel, cast in ivory, the troupe l’oeuil being in the form of corridors off to each wing being set on a considerable slope to create an impression of greater size, but thereby giving the cast ample opportunity to play for laughs by pretending the gradient is akin to the famed north face of the Eiger.

Costumes too err towards the colonial (that is to say, they are strictly formal for the nobility and indeed for the assorted maids, bus boys and other domestic staff), especially the exquisite cream linen suit and panama hat adopted by the Mikado himself (Richard Lloyd), albeit with a ton of padding for good measure.  We first see Ko-Ko (played here by the master of the role, Richard Suart) in his tennis gear, though he quickly changes for fear of being out dressed by Pooh-Bah’s perfect morning suit with top hat.

The schoolgirls are a vision of jolly hockey sticks English public school uniforms, though on this occasion they have been playing lacrosse.  Even from the distance of the upper circle, one can see they are long in the tooth for schoolgirls – however beautifully they sing, and in that respect the solos are handled beautifully, especially, I thought, Mary Bevan‘s Yum-Yum performing The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze.

Mise-en-scène is therefore effective and a splendid backdrop to the action.  By and large, enunciation is admirable, aided by Gilbert’s libretto being displayed on the text screen above the proscenium arch.  However, this does not apply either to dialogue or to lyrics updated in the course of the production, of which the prime example is Suart’s specialty, Ko-Ko’s list song (AKA As Someday It May Happen.)  I could not hear all Suart’s words.

The words and music were equally a joy throughout the show, admirably kept in balance in spite of Gilbert and Sullivan’s protestations that each deferred to the other’s contributions.  Gilbert’s libretto remains as dazzlingly sharp and witty as the day it was first performed in 1885, and Sullivan’s score is equally fresh and vital, with tunes the audience can hum to its heart’s content.  Even non-G&S fans will be surprised how many of the melodies have lingered in their respective subconscious.

I am happy to report that the current cast make an excellent job of communicating the immediacy of the songs.  Lloyd in particular brings a rich and resounding bass to the Mikado, contrasting well with Katisha’s clear mezzo – though I doubt Yvonne Howard can be very pleased that her character is described in the programme as “an elderly lady in love with Nanki-Poo). Anthony Gregory has a pleasing tenor voice and makes more than a decent fist of the opener Wandering Mistrel.  

Thankfully it is not just the songs that entertain the audience.  The assorted shenanigans going on in the background while Merry Madrigal (actually one of the duller musical numbers) is sung eclipse the song many times over.

In fact, the Miller production is so much more than acting, singing, larking around and knowing jokes.  It contains its fair share of satire, slapstick and plenty of intricately choreographed dance numbers, such that you could be excused for thinking you had walked into a seaside pier variety show by mistake.  The glitz, glamour and razzamatazz are there in abundance, to the extent that you sometimes wonder how G&S can make such a light and frothy confection out of a plot that is essentially about the “humane” Mikado whose capital punishment policy is brought into question – which might seem dangerously close to reality in light of terrorist executions. 

The key question is whether you can keep on repeating the same production every other year and retain the sparkle and relevance.  An auditorium full to overflowing tells you the audience has not deserted The Mikado, even allowing for ever-rising seat prices.  It is fair to assume they include a proportion who, like myself, had never seen this production before, and another quota who come along every time and enjoy.

Familiarity does not dim what has become the standard for all productions, such that performing it as a mickey-take on the Japanese seems superfluous. The Mikado is quintessentially English, and says much more about us than ever it does about the Japanese.